To say the weather had been bad was an understatement. It was bloody awful. The whole day had been bloody awful… and then my father had to turn up. Why, oh why, today of all days? Why could he not just leave things alone? But no, he had to turn up in person to pay his respects, having had no face-to-face contact with my mother for at least the last seventeen years. Probably for the last twenty: so far as I knew they had never met since my birth.
Oh, don’t get me wrong; she had not been abandoned to her fate like so many other unmarried women who find themselves with child. My father had taken care of his financial responsibilities. He had made sure that she was well provided for. And me, for that matter. But he never came to see us, and it was well understood that we were not to go and see him.
They did write to each other, and they spoke on the phone — but that, if anything, only made things worse for my mother. Once I got to the age when I could understand the niceties of the situation, I spoke to him on the phone, too. Even when I was at the Catholic boarding school that he had arranged for me, he would phone occasionally and chat. He’d congratulate me on doing well in an exam or playing rugby. He actually made a point of coming to see me play sometimes, but it was made clear to me that this could not be seen as a personal visit; it had to presented as a general visit to the school.
Those visits got less and less as he rose in the hierarchy. I suppose he thought there was just too much risk: too big a chance of gossip catching up with him. There had been some gossip around the time of my birth. The moment it became clear that my mother was with child, he left, went off overseas, and did not return to the country for a good five years. By that time he had moved up within the organization — and he continued to climb.
Mother, of course, followed his success. She was proud of what he was doing. She accepted fully the idea that his work was more important than us. Why? What was so important about his work? Anyone could have done that, but only he could have played the roles of husband and father.
She never loved anyone else. There never was the slightest hint of anyone else. Right to the end there was only him. His photo stood in a silver frame on her bedside table. As you would expect, it was the official photo of him standing in that holier than thou attitude that seemed to go with the job. She kept the real photos out of sight, stored carefully in a suitcase below her bed. The two of them: out walking along a beach; sitting chatting on the sands. How anyone could have missed what was going on between them, I don’t know. But then, as she said, in those days no one expected a girl like her and a man like him to get involved with each other.
She was proud of what he had become, and she did not want to do anything that might upset things. Even when we knew how ill she was she refused to let him know. It was only when it became clear that the end was near that I disobeyed her and sent him a message. I did not expect him to come but I hoped that he would for her sake. He did not.
And now he turns up. He could not make it to her dying, which was a private affair — but he can turn up for her funeral, which is public. Don’t ask me to make sense of that. Not only does he turn up, but his aide informs me that he wants a private chat. The local priest has made his study available for us — the man will be able to dine out on that for weeks.
He was already there when I got to the study, seated behind the big desk. No doubt he was well used to the position of authority.
“Nicholas, I’m sorry I could not be here earlier.”
I was surprised. There seemed to be genuine regret in his voice.
“I suppose you had more pressing business?”
“No, I just did not know.”
“I sent you a message three weeks ago.”
“I know, but I did not get it till Friday, my staff kept it away from me.”
“They what?” Now I was angry; he could have been here while she was still alive.
“Oh, don’t blame them. They kept everything away from me for the last two weeks. I’ve been in hospital.”
I looked at him, puzzled. I had not known. Surely there should have been something in the press.
“It was kept very quiet. If word had got out it would have caused problems in both political and financial circles. Fortunately we have the resources to deal with these things.”
I had to ask… he informed me that it was a heart problem. It went with the job, he joked. You got the power and the glory but you also got the stress.
“Why now then, now it is too late?”
“I have wanted to come for years but she would not let me.” His voice sounded soft, regretful, and truly sad. Then he looked at me and saw the puzzlement on my face. “I know, it sounds petty… one of the most powerful men in the world, and she would not let me do something, but that was the way of things. It was always the way of things; she was the boss.”
In a way I could understand what he was saying. My mother was always the boss. The small woman… dark hair… steel gray eyes that could bore into you… riveting you to the spot, whilst she gave you a verbal bashing. Then, just when you felt ready to crawl away to a quiet corner where you could get lost forever, her arms would wrap round you, pulling you into her and hugging you.
Yes… if my mother said something you went along with it.
He sat back in the chair and looked lost. There was a frailness about him that I had not seen before. A sense of indecision, not knowing what he should be doing. It seemed strange in this figure I was so used to seeing on the television, lambasting heads of state or the whole General Assembly of the United Nations. Somehow he seemed smaller, yet more human.
“You know I wanted to marry her?”
I shook my head in a lie. My mother had told me that, but I wanted to hear his side of the story.
“I was prepared to give it all up… resign… go to London or Birmingham and get a job. I’m a qualified teacher and there is always a demand for teachers.
“She would have none of it. She said I had a destiny and that I must not deny it; if I did it would make both of us unhappy. Told me that I could change things. In that she was right. I have changed things. A couple now finding themselves in the same position as your mother and me are no longer faced with such bleak choices. Don’t get me wrong; things are not easy for them, but the absolute choice between two opposing options no longer applies. There are alternatives in place; middle ways. I was able to get that change made… but by that time it was too late for us.
“She told me, ‘No use going back now. Anyway, you have too much left to do.’ I have and it is not as easy as you might think. Yes, I’m the top, I’m the man, but there is a massive inertia in the system working against my doing anything that might bring about change. I think I am starting to get some of it through, though.
“Of course, the reformers are all praising me for it. It’s her, your mother, they should be praising. Once she forced me to give up our relationship, she lit the blue touch paper which has resulted in the changes I have introduced… but that does not make life any easier.
“They say there has to be one great love in everybody’s life. I loved your mother. That’s why I had to come.”
There was the hint of a tear on his face. I picked up a box of tissues from the table and passed it to him.
“So, now what?”
“I don’t know, son. We have missed too many opportunities, too many chances. I have missed your growing up. Oh, I have kept my eye on you, and been there when I could — but always as an observer, never as a father. I never had the chance to comfort you when you scuffed your knees, or to help you put a train set together at Christmas. All that is missing, it is a loss to both of us.”
Somehow I understood what he was saying. We had both lost. Oh, financially, he had taken care of my mother and me. He had never shirked his responsibility, but there had been a lot that we had missed out on. Only then did I realise that the loss had been his as well as mine. We had both suffered.
“You know I was at the school match when you broke your leg?”
“I wanted to come and hold your hand while you were waiting for the ambulance. I wanted to come to the hospital with you. It was not possible.”
“You came and visited me in hospital.” I felt that I had to justify him.
“Put my bloody head round the corner and asked how you were and wished you well. What type of bloody father is that?”
“One who has others to think of.” The words were out before I could think. They were the truth, though: he always had others to think of.
“That’s the point isn’t it? I had others to think of, but was it enough? Does doing good for others justify the harm that you are doing to yourself and your family?”
I puzzled over that for a moment, trying to find an answer.
“Don’t look for an answer; I have spent an age trying. Oh yes, I have done great good… brought peace, prevented wars, aided those in need. But what did I do for your and your mother?”
“You gave us pride!” He had too. My mother was very proud of him: of what he had done, of what he had become.
“Yes, but I have never given you comfort, nor were you there to comfort me.”
I looked at him and saw a deep loneliness in his eyes. I knew what was behind it, for I felt the same at times.
“I could be if you needed me.”
He smiled. In the distance we heard the sound of an approaching helicopter.
“My transport. They do not give me much time on my own. We need to speak more, my son, but this is not the time or the place.”
He stood and moved out from behind the desk. I stood to meet him, towering over him like a great ox, but feeling small before this man who did so much. We embraced.
The door opened. One of his staff stood outside, waiting, ready to whisk my father off… away from me, who had only just begun to understand him.
“May God be with you, my son.”
I sank to my knees and kissed the Papal ring.